Five terrible writing habits we learn in school – and how to break them

What is good writing? It is a writer’s ability to convey the intended information as clearly as possible.  If the reader stays engaged and possibly entertained along the way, that much better. If the reading is easy and effortless, that’s a sign of good writing. If the reader drops off in the middle or must struggle to understand, something was amiss.

Unfortunately, most schools don’t teach the skill of good writing. In fact, they can do the opposite. We form some bad writing habits in school. Writers then work hard to unlearn these habits. Those who don’t unlearn them subject their readers to confusing, inflated or pompous writing.

The good news is that you can break these bad habits and improve your writing. Here is the list of such habits and how to fix them.

Habit 1: Formal, Jargon heavy, non-spoken English

The head of the Reserve bank, Mr Urjit Patel, recently said “We need to create consensus so that such loan waiver promises are eschewed. Otherwise, sub-sovereign fiscal challenges in this context could eventually affect the national balance sheet.”

He could have said “Political parties have to agree to stop promising loan waivers. Such waivers make the nation poorer.”

The simple, spoken English would make me think of him as a human. His actual statement makes me thinks he is the Governor of an adjective-adverb plant, not the RBI. Heck, even the style guide of the economist magazine says, “Think what you want to say, then say it as simply as possible.”

The way to get out of this habit is to read your writing back to yourself. If it sounds laboured and unnatural, rewrite it. Repeat the exercise till it sounds natural – like you would speak it out. Once you have reached that stage, your final edit is ready.

Habit 2: Long words and sentences

As a kid, I remember a long word or sentence was a great way to impress a teacher. I don’t recall a teacher ever having told me to break a sentence into two, or to substitute a heavy word for a simpler one. A long, complex word was how a student could show off her vocabulary, and therefore her command over the language. Similarly, a long but grammatically correct sentence was a great way to show off her grammar skills to a teacher. Schools encourage such writing, and it gets coded in the student as “good writing”.

Long words are great to show off your vocabulary, but may not be the best way to be connect with your reader. Long sentences are great for showing off your grammar. But they are hard to follow and make the task of reading and understanding more difficult.

As a writer – whether you are writing an email, an article like this one, or a book – the goal is for you to be understood. If you want to impress your reader, do it with your ideas or your wit. Not with your use of long words and sentences. Your average reader is not your English teacher from school. She is someone with limited time, limited patience, and multiple priorities.

Breaking the “long words and sentences” habit is easy. Firstly, remember, you are more likely to be read if you make the task of reading easier. With that goal in mind, work on a printout of your writing (don’t do this on the computer), and look for all unnecessarily long sentences and words. Break long sentences down. Replace long words with shorter ones. Finally, find an eighth grader, ask him to read your writing and see if he understands. That should help make your writing more approachable.

Habit 3: Quantity over quality

Mostly, teachers are still impressed by long answers. In school, how much you write is a measure of how much hard work you put in. That means quantity wins over quality.

In the real world, it is the opposite. The writer must work hard to be brief and succinct. She has to convey her thought or idea as simply and briefly as possible. No wonder even the Oscars have an award for editing. Easy reading is very hard writing.

Breaking this habit is all about editing. Edit your writing like someone else wrote it. Check every word for relevance. Then rewrite and finalize.

Habit 4: Stick to a frame / structure

Schools prescribe a defined structure to writing. It mostly helps, true. But if it becomes too much of a habit, it can limit creativity. Many styles of writing are inherently free of structure – you cannot do stream of consciousness with a pre-defined structure in mind. And many writers – like Stephen King – start with a clean slate and build as they go.

Writing freely and without constraint doesn’t come naturally once we are trained in the use of structure and framework in our writing.

To break this habit, experiment. Try writing without any constraints, and without structure. Try writing nonsense (if my sister were a goat) or any other absurd topic. Free yourself of the walls in your head and write. You will be pleasantly surprised.

Habit 5: Use of metawriting

As a student I might have titled an essay “The impact of the “Simon go back” movement on India’s Independence”. And then start the essay with “This essay will analyse the effect the “Simon go back” movement had on India’s Independence.”

I don’t write like that anymore – in part because my sister married a guy named Simon.

But honestly, how many school pieces do we remember reading – or writing- which start with “In this essay we will explore / analyse XYZ”? And how many had the same information in the title?

Having an introduction isn’t always a bad idea. Even this article has one – because the writing needed context. However, a bad introduction can get in the way. It can create a lot of unnecessary meta-writing (writing about your writing). Instead of starting with my story, I start by telling the reader what my story is about.

This one is easy to unlearn. Look for places in your writing where you are telling the story of the story. Strike that out and just tell the story from word number one. That should give your piece a better start, and remove some unnecessary words.

(We could stop here, but since I was trained to end any piece of writing with a conclusion, here goes.)

Schools do impart a lot of useful things. Mastery of Wren & Martin (or its equivalent) means grammatically correct English. But as writers it is our duty to be clear and brief.

If that means having to unlearn some old habits, we owe that much to our readers.

About Chetan Mahajan: Chetan is the founder and co-host of the Himalayan Writing Retreat. A published author, he quit the corporate world and moved to a village in the Himalayas to be a full-time author and blogger. The Himalayan Writing Retreat is all about helping people with their writing. You can read his interview on NAW here. Read his previous post for NAW where he talks in detail about the Himalayan Writing Retreat here. You can learn more about his various writing events at Himalayan Writing Retreat.



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